This piece is written to help both audiophiles and those looking to find something for their audiophile. Many suggestions are relatively reasonable add-ons that will benefit almost any decent system, while a few are dearer and make sense only for systems pitched at the higher end of the hobby. All are items we’ve used, found to be of real merit, and are passing along as useful found knowledge in a market that is often so dense with choices as to cause options paralysis.
Pro-Ject DAC Box S FL: $349
Think of this tiny DAC as a gift to the universe and you won’t be far wrong. Almost no one knows of it, it’s buried in the Pro-Ject website, but magic lies within. At an SRP of just $349 it provides just two inputs, enough to make snobs sniff at the absence of more sophisticated output formats, just SPDIF (RCA-RCA) and an optical toslink . Deal with it because it is one of a small number of DACs that are rediscovering the analog sound of the original Philips lThink of this tiny DAC as a gift to the universe and you won’t be far wrong. Almost no one knows of it, it’s buried in the Pro-Ject website, but magic lies within. At an SRP of just $349 it provides just two inputs, enough to make snobs sniff at the absence of more sophisticated output formats, just SPDIF (RCA-RCA) and an optical toslink . Deal with it because it is one of a small number of DACs that are rediscovering the analog sound of the original Philips ladder DACs used to properly decode compact discs. I’m not one to spend a lot of time analyzing the intricate details of digital decoding, but as someone who has loved the sound of analog my entire life and designed a fair number of highly regarded phono cartridges, this little box, so easily overlooked for its low cost and simplicity, carries the sound of music in its soul. At this price, buy several.
I’m guessing it will do similarly wonderful things for streamers as it will for CDs. No, it will not decode DSD discs and it will not play hi-res files (why do most of these not sound better than a well decoded CD 16/44 anyway?). But if you’re playing cd-based files, it makes music come alive in the most natural of ways. I’m a big believer in making accurate observations about your body’s reaction to sound. With this little gem, feel your shoulders drop around ½” (12mm) as soon as the music starts, as the whatever it is digital still gets wrong is minimized. It’s so good PS Audio’s amazing new transport was revealed instantly as being dramatically better than any other transport we used this year, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
AudioQuest Carbon Digital Cable: $219.95
This one we use with the DAC Box S-FL, simply put it unlocks the music in a simple, uncomplicated way that resolves time, tempo and dynamics virtually perfectly. There are other fine digital cables, but this one gets so much right for so little that it’s a no brainer. And it manages to present detail in all its many-layered forms without resorting to the hackneyed trick of tilting up the treble. Garth Powell of AQ, who is applying his considerable talents to many of their products gets a gold star for this one. We bought the RCA-RCA Digital cable, USB A-B versions are available at $219.95 for computer audio and XLR-XLR versions are available too.
PS Audio PerfectWave Transport: $6499
As far as we’re concerned the best new transport (so much so that this is a category of one) is PS’s PerfectWave Transport. We’re seeing fewer truly state of the art transports as so much of the market chases the convenience of streaming. Convenient? Sure, but high quality in the way that lets one truly sink into music in the way that got you into this wonderful, crazy mad hoAs far as we’re concerned the best new transport (so much so that this is a category of one) is PS’s PerfectWave TAs far as we’re concerned the best new transport (so much so that this is a category of one) is PS’s PerfectWave Transport. We’re seeing fewer truly state of the art transports as so much of the market chases the convenience of streaming. Convenient? Sure, but high quality in the way that lets one truly sink into music in the way that got you into this wonderful, crazy mad hobby in the first place? Um, no. That still requires physical media. This one is eye popping-ly good, so much so that I wouldn’t waste a lot of time thinking about it. Buy one.
The obvious breakthrough technology headline is an output stage featuring galvanic isolation. Turns out that digital ground is remarkably sensitive to noise incursion from power supplies and all manner of noise contamination; the best way to eliminate this (and digital ground is one of the core remaining challenges for digital designers to resolve) is to create an air gap, thereby eliminating physical connection with all those pesky noise sources that add glaze and grit to digitally reproduced music. Long a pie in the sky wish, it’s here now and there’s only one place to find it, PS Audio. It resolves clarity, detail and body and floats the image free of tethering as well as… nope, better than any of those uber transports that will cost more than your only child’s university education –plus it is simple and intuitive to use. As well, it comes with every possible connection extant (try the i2S bus for best results with DSD and high rez files). In the month we used one it hiccuped not once and now we’ll be buying one because it simply elevates the sound of everything played through it. Run, do not walk because the cost of this is surely headed in only one direction.
Pro-Ject Audio Speaker Box 5 $349/pr.
I may have mentioned these a fI may have mentioned these a few years ago. Why am I doing so again? Because simply put, no one has bettered the idea and execution more than Heinz and his team of a simple, beautiful box speaker that makes absolutely lovely music for so little. If this one were designed and built in the ‘70’s or ‘80’s and was now out of production, they would be selling on Audiogon or eBay for $2,000/pair. A beautifully liquid sounding soft dome tweeter mates with a basic 5 ¼” (15cm) midwoofer of no discernible special qualities. Except that when you hear what these do, it kind of renders the idea of putting expensive in-wall or in-ceiling speakers moot. Note: once you pay for the labor to install ALL them in-ceiling or in-wall speakers are very expensive for the sound quality delivered. Try these in a den, a library or as a great inexpensive starter for a home theatre. Want great sound while you cook? Throw a pair of these out of sight, above your top cabinets and run them with a Sonos or a small integrated amp with Alexa-controlled Qobuz and whip up an omelette. It’ll taste better with great music.
REL Tip: Pair these with one or a pair of Tzero MKIII in a small room, T/5x in a medium or larger space if you want to hear a remarkable musical event take place at a truly affordable price.
Power Filters and Cables: AudioQuest PQ3 $299.95
AQ owns a fair amount of the cable market, but they do so in part because they work harder at pushing and refining their products faster than most. Here are a few AQ owns a fair amount of the cable market, but they do so in part because they work harder at pushing and refining their products faster than most. Here are a few items that caught our eye and a great a/c power cable from our friends up the road at Cardas cables too.
AQ has a new power filter for a/c mains conditioning. For those of you who always lusted after one of their big, expensive Niagara units but couldn’t afford it, here’s a sensibly priced unit that just works, your prayers have been answered. While a Niagara 7000 can set you back almost $10K, their new PQ3 runs just $300. And it delivers premium features like well-made high current sockets and low current plugs that provide additional filtering. We used it exclusively for source components reasoning that at that price the biggest gains will likely attach to sensitive low level circuits more dramatically than big high current power amplifiers that likely already have excellent power supplies and regulation stages. Boy are we glad we did. While we heard small gains continuing to accrue throughout the week we ran it, it was obvious after just 2 hours of run in that we were hearing everything rendered with both greater ease as well as upgraded dynamics. At the end of our week with the PQ3, returning back to plugging directly into our hospital grade a/c sockets in our walls but with no PQ3 a/c filter installed confirmed that the PQ3 delivers noticeable improvements in all areas of restored dynamics and a quieter background that allows more detail to emerge without manipulating the sound. It’s simply easier to hear the magic come to life. A great product at a great price.
Digital Cable: AudioQuest Carbon 1.5m $289.95
Our little steal of a DAC from Pro-ject required a highly resolved digital cable to extract the performance we described. Our man at AQ whose judgement we trust implicitly is David Ellington. David recommended the Carbon Digital (RCA-RCA) which cost almost as much as the DAC. No worries, it was exactly the right call and the combination Our little steal of a DAC from Pro-ject required a highly resolved digital cable to extract the performance we described. Our man at AQ whose judgement we trust implicitly is David Ellington. David recommended the Carbon Digital (RCA-RCA) which cost almost as much as the DAC. No worries, it was exactly the right call and the combination cost less than a middle of the pack cd player. Using cheap “digital” cables (a basic coax with RCA plugs) the sound of the DAC was adequate, better than the moderately-priced Denon CD player we had pressed into service but nothing like what the Carbon unlocked. With the AQ Carbon installed, the sound simply exploded to life, all whilst retaining the subtler aspects of sound.
A/C Mains Cables: Cardas Iridium $299
After setting up and dialing in a Line Array of (6) x No.25 Reference subs for Jeff Dorgay of Tone Audio he suggested installing Cardas Iridium A/C mains cables on each of the subs. Five minutes later, we had 6 brand new cables plugged in. While the dynamics immediately jumped, I could hear that the initial improvement centered on tAfter setting up and dialing in a Line Array of (6) x No.25 Reference subs for Jeff Dorgay of Tone Audio he suggested installing Cardas Iridium A/C mains cables on each of the subs. Five minutes later, we had 6 brand new cables plugged in. While the dynamics immediately jumped, I could hear that the initial improvement centered on the mid-bass at around 50 Hz. From experience, I knew that cable break-in can spread out and linearize the improvements. We were not disappointed when just two hours later, everything, from top-to-bottom had opened up, dynamics were better across the board (no peak at 50 Hz remained) and the system’s demeanor took on a quietly powerful quality wherein music was not forced upon you as much as presented evenly and calmly with tremendous space and air for your ears to hear into a sound space that was larger and more informative.
Isolation Platforms for Source Components: HRS Isolation Systems $1225
Sensitive low level source components, much like microphonic tube circuits can be pathways to mechanical and airborne excitation when used in full range systems, whether from giant state of the art speakers or from the use of quality subwoofers like RELs that extend down an octave or deeper into the infra bass region. Turntables, CD transports, DACs, even Streamers (to a lesser extent) can be affected by vibration. For 20 years, one company has delivered the absolute state of the art. Harmonic Resolution Systems produces incredibly well-built, extremely heavy (mass loading serves to both drive the resonant frequency down to a level that is difficult to excite the sonically damaging energy that blurs and distorts sound) and well isolated. Too many lesser offerings try to make do with one (usually decoupling via rubber-like elastomers) or the other (heavy metal platforms with cones are, at best, a partial solution).
When we owned SUMIKO and took part in High End Audio displays wherein the pickiest reviewers from around the world would spend hours listening to our setups. We always asked for and HRS was generous enough to loan us, full isolation stands—these all-in racks would set you back $25,000 or more, but they always delivered and were a significant part of our success. Now they make available a simple, aspirationally-priced platform called the HRS E1, available in a few sizes. The E1-1921 is a 19” x 21” platform that even large transports, DACs, turntables etc. will easily fit on and is offered in silver or black finishes with intelligently spaced weight ranges for your equipment. At $1,225 it may not be cheap but if you suffer from acoustic breakthrough issues, it may well be priceless. With one of these in, even well isolated components open up and reveal spatial qualities previously difficult to sort out from the pure musical line. Deep bass often benefits dramatically and the general sense of confident, clearly followed rhythms and textures makes music a more joyous event. They’re so good I want to experiment with a high quality BluRay player to see what improvements can be wrought in the video medium. I suspect they will be just as evident there, perhaps even more so than in audio.
KEF LS50 Meta: $1599
Now that their name’s been appropriated by our friends in Silicon Valley, perhaps KEF should have named these the KEF LS-50 FaceBooks. In any event, you’ll have tons of friends commenting positively (while rubbing a sore knuckle—my gNow that their name’s been appropriated by our friends in Silicon Valley, perhaps KEF should have named these the KEF LS-50 Facebooks. In any event, you’ll have tons of friends commenting positively (while rubbing a sore knuckle—my goodness are these things inert) about their sparkling sound quality. Full disclosure: there is a super-synergistic blend between REL Serie T/x subs and the new Meta’s that is otherworldly. On their own, Meta can sound a little cool, a trace reluctant to breathe dynamically. Paired with T/9xs in larger rooms and 7x’s in medium and smaller rooms their resolution means that especially precise crossover and gain settings are a breeze to achieve and the enhanced resolution of the Meta pairs with the sparkling dynamics of the RELs—especially in stereo pairs–– in a way that will have manufacturers of many $12,000–-15,000 speakers sitting very nervously at audio shows. Get the Royal Blue, it’s perfect.
A/C Mains Power Cable Pt II: One at $795 and ideal for Reference RELs and one at $329.
Two additional last second adds but clearly worth exploring based on their “jump” straight out of the box are two of AudioQuest’s newer offerings. Blizzard at $795 (2M) takes a little longer to begin to open up (consistent with higher quality dielectrics that are stiffer) but a day into listening, something special is beginning to take place. Clearly deeper bass, and blacker and more resolved portions in the quiet areas of your sound space are evident. One thing important to point out is that all benefits I refer to in ALL of these recommendations occur across the entire audio spectrum.
At $329.95 for AudioQuest’s new NRG Z3 a/c cable, I decided to try something a little different and replaced the a/c mains cable on our preamp. Again, after a relatively short run in period it is clear the sound field is quickly opening up and becoming more expressive, with none of that narrow focus in just 1-2 areas (that always means a cable designer is trying to trick inexperienced ears into hearing a “difference”). If any cable does not improve the whole cloth of the system from top-to-bottom run away with your hand on your wallet. Check out the NRG range, trickle down technology from their big, expensive new cables means great value and real improvements.
I Saved the (Analog) Best for Last:
The legendary SOTA Sapphire is a stone-cold bargain at just $4,000. Improvements to the original are so numerous as to make impossible a call out in such a short piece and means that it is instantly competitive with $10,000 ‘tables. Every mechanical junction and interface has been reexamined and improved. Motors and their power supplies upgraded (and available for longtime owners at ridiculously low prices –nice to see them take care of old customers) bearings, platters, tone arm-to-bearing junctions. The only thing that remains is the styling. The ‘table itself I have on the authority from a trusted source is lightyears beyond the sound of the original. And you can run Full Range systems without fear of feedback, that runaway howling when under-designed turntables can’t cope with deep bass. Those of you who are REL owners or contemplating the purchase of a pair of our subwoofers, finally have a fantastic choice in turntables.
Oh, and I want to hear the vacuum hold down version of the SOTA Millenia Eclipse. At around $12,000 it is not inexpensive but may well be the first ‘table under $30k to seriously threaten the mighty SME 30. Hallelujah and Happy Holidays!